Many were saying that crowds were down from last year. I couldn’t tell. For a 9:15am screening of Mary and Max we were barely able to find parking (The Yard, $10) and get to the show in time.

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Mary and Max

Once the lights dimmed in the Eccles theater and the movie started, I was able to take a deep breath and bask in the realization: I’m about to see a unique film with an excited Sundance crowd.

Mary and Max was the festival opener the night before and it was a great choice. It is a ‘claymation’ written, directed and designed by the Academy Award-winning Australian animator Adam Elliot, whose excellent voice cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. While the method of animation is traditional stop motion, the story is not your traditional animated fare.

It follows Mary (Bethany Whitmore), a little girl in Australia with a distant father and alcoholic mother who is teased at school for having a birthmark on her forehead that resembles a ‘poo stain.’ Searching for a lifeline, she writes to a random address in New York City and begins an unlikely correspondence with Max Horovitz, a literal-minded curmudgeon whose perspective on the world is distorted by his Aspberger’s syndrome and severe anxiety attacks.

Mary’s letters torment Max, but he writes back anyway. As Mary grows older (and becomes voiced by Toni Collette), Max’s letters will both lead to Mary’s greatest joys and torment her in return. Though the movie is animated and whimsical, the themes of it are quite adult. Friendship, it understands, gives each participant power for both good and ill over the other’s mental state. A masterful animated sequence set to the song “Que serĂ¡, serĂ¡”, which illuminates the depths of Mary’s depression, brought me to tears.

The movie outdoes both the fart quotient and smart quotient of the usual animated film. Its unique blend of the scatological with whimsy and melancholy is, I suppose, what makes it a Sundance film. I’d be hard-pressed to name another film with a similar tone. It is not the product of a committee, but of a singular vision. A great start to the festival.

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After Mary and Max, Lillian and I decided to take a shot in the dark and waitlist for the next film at the Eccles, Humpday. The wait line was very friendly (and decidedly younger-skewing than the line of ticket holders. I have no confirmation for the statistic, but I was told by an acquaintance that fully 30% of tickets sold at the ‘Dance go unredeemed. As numbers 76 and 77 trying to get into a 1500+ seat venue (Sundance’s largest), I felt we therefore had a good shot. We did not get the chance to see, however, since we were lucky enough to be queued at the place where the line first bends back, right near the door where people enter the wait area. People with extra tickets kept coming in to sell them (or give them away) and we snagged a two-fer minutes before the show was meant to start.

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Humpday Sundance 2009 movie post-screening panel with Lynn SheltonHumpday

A great addition to the ‘mumblecore’ cannon, Humpday stars genre superstar Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, co-writer of Baghead). “Written” and directed by Lynn Shelton, it is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long, long time and has a razor-sharp eye for human foibles.

I put “written” in quotes not to demean Shelton’s contribution to the story, which was a detailed outline and character backstories, but to elevate the cast, who improvised not only wonderful dialogue but also great small moments of very human reaction to some awkward situations. Credit also goes to the editing team, lead by Nat Sanders, who whittled down those improvisations and shaped them into mumblecore magic.

The story is about two college friends, Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), whose lives have diverged in the intervening years. Andrew, a self-styled artist, has been traveling the world leading a life of adventure. Ben has married, has an office job, and is trying to start a family with his loving wife Anna (Alycia Delmore). When Andrew shows up at Ben’s house in the middle of the night, we have the makings of a classic boulder-in-the-river story. Will the boulder be removed, or will the river be diverted?

The unexpected complication is that both men, who wish to prove that they are ‘complicated’ and ‘adventurous,’ get goaded into agreeing to have sex with each other on camera for Seattle weekly The Stranger’s Humpfest, a film festival of amateur pornography. Whether Ben can convince Anna to allow him to do it, and whether they will even go through with it, is the story of the film.

The Sundance audience was quite aware of how the movie implicitly challenged people’s understanding of sexuality. A gay audience member was worried that it normalizes homophobia. Director Shelton, who plays a bisexual in the movie with her real-life girlfriend, said that was the furthest from her intentions. She intended to show that straight people can no more choose to be gay than gay can choose to be straight. She then told an anecdote about screening the film for someone’s conservative father who, after viewing it, reversed his position on Prop 8.

I care less about any ‘messages’ that might be in the subtext of the film than the fact that it brilliantly and hilariously reveals human nature. The behavior of the characters is at once completely logical and completely absurd. Shelton is crafty enough to put these characters into revealing situations and let them mumble it out.

Mumblecore is not for everyone, and at least one acquaintance I saw after the film said he despised it. I wanted more. I love long talky passages that lead to unexpected revelations, and in seeing contradictions I recognize in myself so faithfully captured on screen.

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Drew Bennett dances to sell his screenplaysAfter Humpday, we grabbed a shuttle to Main Street. There was a bit less of the circus atmosphere than I recall from my previous visit to Sundance, in 2004. The only barker I saw was a guy named Drew Bennett, dancing on the sidewalk in a t-shirt that read ‘BUY MY SCREENPLAYS’.

He was already talking to another reporter, and we had to get to the Kansas Film Commission party, but I gave him a card and asked him to let me know if he had success. If so, you can bet I’ll be back at Sundance next year, dancing on the sidewalk in a t-shirt.

Kansas Film Commission Sundance 2009 partyThe Kansas Film Commission party at Bistro 412 was packed. They had the upstairs area was nearly impassable. I talked to numerous interesting people, film people from Kansas and elsewhere, but there was one particular Sundance character who stuck out.

A well-weathered man with a colorful neck scarf struck up a conversation to cover his gorging on the appetizer platter. This was his 15th Sundance, he said. I asked if he had any tips for newbies. “If you go to enough parties,” he said, “you never have to pay for a meal.”

He also offered that the best way to get tickets was to have one person go stand in the waitlist line while another stays where the buses let off, waving a twenty dollar bill. And, he said, ride the bus. “You meet the friendliest people on the bus.” He was one of the regulars who concurred that it was “not as crowded” this year. But there was no trace in the intonation that he considered this a bad thing.

It was only 5pm or so when we left Main Street and caught a bus back to The Yard. Driving out of town was a long process because all the main roads were backed up, and there was a three-car fender-bender right before the I-80 on ramp. Sitting in stop and go traffic, I wondered how bad it was last year, if this year is considered less crowded.